The following conversation took place in part at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House and in part at the 2016 Glimmerglass Festival with the much-appreciated facilitation of the San Francisco Opera and Glimmerglass Festival. It is posted in coordination with Brian Mulligan’s appearances at the 2016 Glimmerglass Festival as John Proctor in Ward’s “The Crucible”.
[Below: Baritone Brian Mulligan; edited image of a Dario Acosta photograph, courtesy of Brian Mulligan.]
Wm: Since our last conversation [Rising Stars: An Interview with Brian Mulligan], I’ve reviewed opera performances in Zurich and San Francisco in which you had major roles. Let me start with the San Francisco Opera’s Fall 2015 season.
BM: That 2012 interview with you in was practically the first one I ever had. 2015 was quite a year for me in San Francisco. It was in the midst of ten role debuts in a 16 month period.
Wm: Let’s start by listing the ten role debuts.
BM: Sure! Tadeusz in Weinberg’s “The Passenger” and Amfortas in Wagner’s “Parsifal” (Oper Frankfurt), Chorebe in Berlioz’ “Les Troyens” (San Francisco Opera), Amonasro in Verdi’s “Aida” (Aspen Music Festival), the title role in Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd”, Roderick Usher in Getty’s “Usher House” and Roderick Usher in Debussy’s “La chute de la maison Usher” (San Francisco Opera), Paolo Albiani in Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra” (New York Met), Jack Torrance in Morevac’s “The Shining” (Minnesota Opera) and John Proctor in Ward’s “The Crucible” (Glimmerglass Festival).
Wm: Let’s first talk about your appearance in Lee Blakeley’s production of Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd”. [Review: Searing Performances by Brian Mulligan and Stephanie Blythe for San Francisco Opera’s First “Sweeney Todd” – September 12, 2015] What was it like working with Blakeley and your co-star Stephanie Blythe?
[Below: Sweeney Todd (Brian Mulligan, left) is overjoyed to discover that Mrs Lovett (Stephanie Blythe, right) has kept his razors safe for him; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
BM: It was just incredible, a dream come true. Lee is one of the best directors that I’ve ever worked with. He is very patient and very generous. Sharing the stage with Stephanie as Mrs Lovett was a riot of fun. It was an incredibly memorable experience.
It was a physically challenging production, much harder that I thought it would be.
Wm: Unlike most of the opera you sing, Sondheim’s musicals are miked. How does that affect your performance?
BM: In fact, the greatest challenge in performing Sweeney Todd is all the spoken dialogue. Even though it’s miked, in San Francisco Opera’s War Memorial Opera House, you almost have to treat the spoken dialogue like singing, since you have to be heard all the way up to the upper balcony. It took constant thought to make sure I was speaking those lines so that I would be understood.
The whole project was so fun and yet so exhausting. I’ll never forget it.
Wm: Lee Blakeley is on quite a run in staging classic musicals for the opera house. Are there other musicals that you would be interested in doing on an opera house stage?
BM: I’m too young to do “Man of La Mancha” yet, although I would be interested in that role later in my career. Maestro Patrick Summers has told me he believes the Fred Graham/Petruchio role in Noel Coward’s “Kiss Me Kate” would be perfect for me, and Stephanie Blythe has encouraged me to do it as well.
Wm: As “Sweeney Todd’s” run was ending, you moved right into Michael Cavanagh’s new production of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor”. What are thoughts on that experience?
BM: In fact, the morning after “Sweeney Todd” opened, rehearsals began for “Lucia”.
I love working with Michael Cavanagh. He has to be one of the nicest people in the entire business. I had lovely colleagues to work with – Nadine Sierra, Piotr Beczala, Nicolas Teste and A. J. Glueckert.
[Below: Enrico (Brian Mulligan, right) attempts to communicate with his deranged sister Lucia (Nadine Sierra, left); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Although I’ve sung the role of Enrico a lot, I learned things about the role and the opera from that production, as well as new phrasing from Maestro Nicola Luisotti.
Wm: What did you learn from Maestro Luisotti?
BM: In bel canto operas like “Lucia” there are traditions that artists learn that we call “tacits”. There are bars of music written for your role that you don’t sing, allowing you to prepare for the bars that follow. Maestro gave me some “tacits” that I had never considered, that proved to be incredibly helpful in performance. Some of those tacits were surprising, but very logical. He helped me perform the “Italian intent” of the music in ways I had never before thought of.
Wm: Was there a significance to the large grey leather gloves that you wore as Enrico?
BM: Originally, the plan was for Enrico to be an albino, with all white skin and hair, but when we first tried to stage it in the War Memorial Opera House, it didn’t work. It wasn’t reading that Enrico was albino, so they made me blonde.
The idea was that Enrico was repulsed by his own body. He couldn’t look at his own hands, so he wore the gloves. It was eccentric, but that’s why I looked so different from everyone else on stage.
[Below: Tadeusz (Brian Mulligan, left) consoles Marta (Sara Jakubiak, right); edited image, based on a Barbara Aumüller photograph for Oper Frankfurt, courtesy of Brian Mulligan.]
Wm: Next in San Francisco you performed the lead roles in a double bill of operas – Getty’s “Usher House” and Debussy’s “La Chute de la Maison Usher”, each based on Edgar Allan Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher. What interested you about the concept of the double bill?
BM: I was drawn to the production because the Poe story is open to so many different interpretations. Is Madeline alive or was she killed? Is the house haunted? Both Getty’s and Debussy’s interpretations are compelling.
Wm: What was that experience like of performing two different operatic versions derived from a specific literary character?
BM: The double bill shaped up liked I hoped it would, as an examination of different types of madness. Roderick Usher in both operas is mentally ill, and perhaps physically ill as well.
Both operas were very text heavy. Both of my characters kept talking and talking. Both are crazy, but there are different types of crazy.
In Getty’s opera, Roderick is manic in his insanity. He dances and laughs and is out of his mind. Debussy’s Roderick is terrified and is in absolute despair. He fully comprehends the severity of his circumstances.
Wm: How did you differentiate these different operatic approaches?
BM: We used different wigs and makeup to differentiate the characters. Getty’s Roderick looks healthier. His hair is curled. The Debussy Roderick has all the life drained out of him.
I found the Debussy to be incredibly difficult. I’ve never experienced anything before requiring the sheer amount of chromatics. There are so many ideas in a brief opera. It’s both textually and musically very dense. It’s like 40 of Debussy’s art songs snipped and clipped together.
Wm: Since we last talked, I reviewed your performance at the Zurich Opera in a new Robert Carsen production of Tchaikovsky’s “Queen of Spades (Pikovaia Dama)” [See Robert Carsen’s Brilliantly Refocused “Pique Dame” – Zurich Opera, May 3, 2014].What was that experience like?
[Below: Brian Mulligan (far left, standing) is Prince Yeletsky in Robert Carsen’s 2014 Zurich Opera production of Tchaikovsky’s “Queen of Spades”; edited image of a Monika Rittershaus photograph for Zurich Oper.]
BM: Working with Carsen in Zurich, one of the most beautiful cities in the world, was marvelous. The production was beautiful, It was one of those rare times where everyone was made to look so regal, with the men in custom-made tuxedos. The music was sumptuous and amazing. I was one of the few non-Russian singers, and my Russian improved a lot through this experience.
Wm: You did it again early this summer. How did you originally link up with the Zurich Opera?
BM: Zurich Opera’s Sophie De Lint heard me in New York. As a result, I am scheduled to be in Zurich a lot. In fact, I stay at an apartment on Lake Zurich. I love the city, because you can easily get to anywhere in Europe from there.
Wm: I was very impressed by your performance of the role of John Proctor in Ward’s “The Crucible” at the 2016 Glimmerglass Festival. [Review: Mulligan, Barton, Zambello, Paiement Make the Case for “The Crucible” – Glimmerglass Festival, August 5, 2016]. What can you tell me about your preparations for that role?
[Below: John Proctor (Brian Mulligan, center) gives testimony as Elizabeth Proctor (Jamie Barton, left) and Judge Danforth (Jay Hunter Morris, right) look on; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]
BM: I think that “The Crucible” was one of the first operas I ever saw. it was performed at the Tri-Cities Opera in Binghamton, New York, where I grew up. I’d never been to the Glimmerglass Festival and its Alice Busch Theater. I was so glad to be performing the role for Francesca Zambello.
It was very strange that I was attracted to 20th century music even before I was a singer – barely even a student. There was something very powerful for me to see this story communicated in English. I think the story is so compelling and the role of John Proctor is concerned with what we would do in our darkest hour. What are we willing to sacrifice for our integrity?
I love American Opera and singing in English. I feel that I can communicate well in English. Even though I’m working hard on my German, I don’t think I will ever communicate as well in that language as I do in English.
Wm: As an advocate for operas that are written to be sung in English, what are some of the contemporary works besides those you are singing yourself, that interest you?
BM: I like the wonderful work by the late Peter Lieberson called “The World on Flower”. It is written for baritone, mezzo-soprano and chorus. I think it is important to pay attention to the symphonic works with parts written for singers. These can be equally compelling as operas.
At the 2015 Aspen Opera Festival, I saw Theofanidis’ “The Cows of Apollo”, which I thought was a beautiful opera and a hilarious one.
Wm: What are some of the contemporary operatic works that you have performed in English that you believe will endure?
BM; I think that Adams’ “Nixon in China” and “The Death of Klinghoffer” are masterpieces that will endure. I would like to see John Adams’ music presented more often in mainland Europe. I think the pathos of “Klinghoffer” is artistically brilliant.
Wm: Speaking of American opera, according to reports, you had a great success creating the role of Jack Torrance in Morevac’s new opera “The Shining” at the Minnesota Opera in May.
BM: We had workshopped “The Shining” with the composer, librettist and director. For me it was a dream come true. The film “The Shining”, on which it is based is amazing, as was the iconic performance of Jack Nicholson. The opera follows Stephen King’s book more closely than does the film, but I made sure that there would be a few winks to Jack Nicholson’s film performance.
[Below: Brian Mulligan as Jack Torrance; edited image of a Dario Acosta promotional photograph, courtesy of Brian Mulligan.]
It was a fascinating project, many years in the making. The music is creepy and strange with some moments of real terror. “The Shining”, like Stephen King’s “Dolores Claiborne” is about the terror created by domestic violence. The violence that Jack has towards his wife and young son is terrifying. My interpretation was meant to convey that there isn’t anything that is scarier than domestic violence.
Wm: I understand you have recently been in the recording studio.
BM: I have recorded two works of Dominick Argento – The Andrée Expedition and From the Diary of Virgina Woolf. I am attracted to composers who write for the voice. The way Argento composes his music, the words in English trip off of the tongue. One of the reasons for the recording is to recognize Argento’s genius.
The Andrée Expedition is a 45 minute song cycle for baritone and piano that recounts the story of a group of Swedish men who attempted to fly to the North Pole via passenger balloon, but who failed. The song cycle is made up of diary entries and letters that the men wrote home to their families that were discovered in the wreckage of the balloon.
For the Diary of Virgina Woolf Argento set passages from her diary to music. It is a beautiful song cycle that won the Pulitzer Prize.
Wm: How did your attraction to Argento’s music come about?
BM: I first came to know his choral piece I Hate and I Love. As I began to listen to it more and more, I fell in love with it, and articulated that to Mr Argento.
It was as I began to understand that piece, that I realized that some of the greatest music hasn’t even been composed yet.
Wm: I agree with you on that. I’ve reviewed the world premieres of several new American operas and have argued that some of the greatest operatic music will be composed or influenced by the current generation of American composers.
BM: We’ve got to keep producing new works. It’s my feeling that American audiences respond best to composers that communicate to them in English with words and meanings that are are accessible to them.
Wm: Obviously, you are not neglecting the rest of the operatic repertory.
BM: Even though singing in English gives me great pleasure, I love all the standard operatic repertory as well. I currently am in a period with a lot of American repertory. In the next few years, I will have several Verdi role debuts and will be preparing Nelusko in Meyerbeer’s “L’Africaine” for a new production in Germany. I will be singing more Wagner, including Amfortas in “Parsifal”.
Wm: Let’s talk about other role debuts coming up. What Verdi roles are you adding?
BM: I’ll be adding the Count di Luna in “Il Trovatore” at Oper Frankfurt and, in the future, Don Carlo in “La Forza del Destino” as well as the title role of “Rigoletto”. Other role debuts will include Balstrode in Britten’s “Peter Grimes” and Golaud in “Pelleas et Melisande”, as well as my first cycle of Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelungs”. I still am interested in John the Baptist in Richard Strauss’ “Salome”.
Wm: In my 2012 interview, you had indicated that you were not interested in singing the title role of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”, which you had performed in your student days, because you couldn’t relate to the character. Do you still hold that position?
BM: I’ve had some conversations with Francesca Zambello, who has encouraged me to participate in a semi-staged version of the opera, at least to think about it. She’s staged the opera with a dozen different Giovannis and has suggested that we talk through some ideas about the character. So, maybe, the Don is not totally out of the question.
Wm: Thanks, Brian. It’s always a pleasure talking with you!
BM: Thank you!